For the last eleven years I’ve been going to the National Union of Teachers Easter Conference, which my partner attends as a union delegate, so you could say that I’m a little biased when it comes to my assessment of these events.
I only attend the conference as a sporadic observer, but whenever I do I’m invariably impressed by the passion, insight and dedication of so many of the speakers, and by the intelligence, thoughtfulness and breadth of opinion that informs their debates.
Every year I’m always struck by the discrepancy between what I observe at these conferences and the way they are portrayed in the British press. This year’s conference in Torquay has been no exception. Writing in the Sun – that bastion of cultural and educational achievement – Michael Gove’s friend and free school advocate Toby Young has engaged in the usual lazy smears about NUT ‘nutters’ and bearded men in Che Guevara t-shirts (there aren’t any), in an opinion piece on ‘why we must protect kids from the NUTs.
Poisonous caricature is only to be expected from a man who has clearly made his own ideological choices, but it is hardly unique to him. And the ritualistic media response to the teaching unions’ Easter conference season is only one expression of a wider contempt and hostility towards teachers in general that increasingly permeates British society.
No other profession is so relentlessly pilloried by the political establishment and the media. For decades, Labour or Conservative politicians have routinely depicted teachers as backward-looking ‘apologists for failure’, who don’t really care about the children they teach and whose overriding concern is to hide their incompetence from the outside world.
Soldiers may be ‘our finest men and women’, and the old Florence Nightingale mystique still produces a soft spot for nurses. But teachers it seems, always know less than the politicians who tell them what to do. With a few exceptions, the UK press has followed suit.
Whenever teachers complain of stress, demoralisation, deprofessionalisation, excessive workload, or question the endless and often ill-thought out initiatives imposed upon them by politicians, the British press tends to follow the official lead and present them as extremists, whiners, stick-in-the-mud reactionaries, or a lazy privileged caste clinging onto their long holidays.
It’s a measure of the dominant Philistinism of British society that a once-respected profession entrusted with the crucial task of educating the nation’s youth should be now be held in such low esteem, and that the opinions and expertise of teachers should so often be regarded as somehow irrelevant or even as an impediment to reform and improvement, by politicians and journalists who have not been anywhere near a classroom for years.
But teacher-bashing is also politically convenient. More than any other profession, teachers make useful scapegoats for the manifold failings of British society. For politicians, a populist discourse about ‘failed’ teachers and ‘failed’ schools avoids a more problematic debate about social inequality, class and investment in state education.
If there is unemployment, then it is the fault of teachers for not providing their pupils with the requisite grades to compete in a globalized economy. The recent Riots, Communities and Victims Report naturally listed ‘bad schools’ as one of the causes of the riots, and recommended that schools that fail to achieve designated literacy and numeracy targets should be fined.
This terrible proposal is par for the course. The belief that teachers cannot be trusted with education is reflected above all by Ofsted, a destructive and malignant institution that essentially acts as a tool for the government-of-the-day to bully schools and teachers into jumping through their ever-changing hoops.
Under the leadership of Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted has changed its inspection criteria so that more schools are listed as unsatisfactory or failing – an objective which overlaps seamlessly with Michael Gove’s privatisation agenda, in which schools are bullied and bribed into becoming academies.
This September, there will be more academies than comprehensives for the first time – a transformative moment that threatens the future of state education and the pay and conditions of those who work within it. Under the new dispensation, local pay contracts are being negotiated that will undermine years of collective bargaining arrangements.
Teacher pensions are being cut and future teachers will be obliged to work till they are 68 or 70 in order to get them. Under new government regulations, schools will no longer even be obligated to provide staffrooms.
So it isn’t surprising that the mood at conference is angry, with overwhelming support for a boycott of Ofsted inspections and industrial action on pensions. And it isn’t just the NUT. The NASUWT has also voted in favour of strike action, in response to what its general secretary Chris Keates called an ‘unparalleled vicious assault’ on teachers, schools and state education.
Faced with such opposition, the government and its supporters will be even keener than usual to attribute these decisions to the ideological agendas of militants, extremists and the SWP.
But in my eleventh year as a conference observer, what I’m seeing in Torquay is a profession that has had enough, and which now senses that only the most dramatic action can force this most ideological of governments to change course.
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